This unpredictable cycle of action and reaction has thwarted U.S. policy in southwestern Asia for 50 years. It began with attempts to contain the Soviet Union and control the oil-rich fields of the Persian Gulf, and continues today in the popular assault in Afghanistan to destroy the al-Qa'ida terrorist network. In that half century, nearly every major initiative led to an unexpected and sometimes catastrophic reaction, for which new military remedies were devised, only again to stir unforeseen problems. The cycle, regrettably, may be repeating again.
The half-century history begins with CIA intrigue in Iran. The original spigot of Middle Eastern oil, Iran was long dominated by Britain and its oil company, British Petroleum. During World War II, strongman Reza Kahn, a Nazi sympathizer, was deposed by the British in favor of his son, Reza Shah, who in turn was shunted aside by the increasingly assertive parliament, the Majlis. In 1951, the Majlis elected as premier Mohammed Mossedegh, a nationalist reformer, who quickly sought control over Iran's oil wealth. The British, aghast at seeing 50 percent of BP's stake in Iran nationalized, sought his ouster, which the CIA provided in 1953. The Shah was reinstated and ruled with an iron fist, enabled by lavish American military aid.
The overthrow of Mossedegh remains a bitter memory for Iranians, and for Muslims more widely. While he was mainly a secular nationalist, even Islamic militants bewail his fate as another instance of Western interference and violence. In the years of the Shah's rule, many of the beleaguered reformers gravitated toward the ulama, the clerical class, who were relatively independent of the regime. So U.S. policy, which targeted the left as possible Soviet sympathizers or threats to oil interests, had the unintended effect of strengthening the political power and sophistication of the ulama.
By the 1970s, the Shah had become a self-styled regional power, flush with an unfettered flow of weaponry from the United States. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, neither a wallflower when it came to arming allies against perceived Soviet expansionism, had bluntly dismissed the Shah's pleas for military supremacy, but President Nixon embraced the Shah without restraint. Not only were the newest jet fighters and other advanced weaponry made available, but endless commercial ties were created, bringing thousands of Americans to Teheran. In 1971, the Shah's oil minister launched a cascade of price increases that rocked the American economy for nearly a decade, but it was American guns and products that the ever-richer Shah and his cohort really sought. A widely perceived decadence eroded whatever support the regime maintained, and by the late 1970s, the Shah was struggling against the now-familiar Muslim "street" that detested the Westernized elite and resented their fabulous oil riches in the midst of poverty. In 1979, the Shah abdicated and left Iran in a stew of disarray. It was only a matter of months before the Islamic Revolution came to full flower.
The Soviets had meddled in Afghanistan for years, supporting its on-again, off-again communist party. A mildly pro-Soviet regime in Kabul was under intense pressure from Islamic radicals in the late 1970s, however, and Moscow kept a wary eye on the chaotic events in neighboring Iran. As Islamic militancy gained in the post-Shah governments in Teheran, the Kabul regime became less and less tenable. In the Kremlin, the Soviet leadership opposed intervention until the Afghan regime was in complete turmoil. A high-level Russian, Georgy Kornienko, notes it was Defense Minister D.F. Ustinov who finally convinced the others to intervene:
"The push to change his former point of view," he recalls in a memoir, "came from the stationing of American military ships in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1979, and the incoming information about preparations for a possible American invasion of Iran, which threatened to cardinally change the military-strategic situation in the region to the detriment of the interests of the Soviet Union. If the United States can allow itself such things tens of thousands of kilometers away from their territory in the immediate proximity from the USSR borders, why then should we be afraid to defend our positions in the neighboring Afghanistan? -- this was approximately Ustinov's reasoning."Politburo minutes from the entire previous year, now available, make clear the Soviet leaders' view that the Islamic militants were responsible for major attacks on government forces in Herat and elsewhere, and posed a threat, particularly with the active aid of the new Khomeini regime in Iran. The USSR, after all, included five Central Asia republics that were predominantly Muslim and bordered both Afghanistan and Iran. So the Shah's decades-long brutality gave rise to a broad Islamic movement in the region that, once in power in Teheran, not only alarmed Washington but also worried the much nearer Moscow.
The U.S. response to the collapse of the Shah, the triumph of Khomeini, and the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to be played out tragically over the coming dozen years. Beginning with the Carter administration in the summer of 1979 -- months before the Soviets invaded -- the CIA provided arms and training to the Afghan opposition, the now infamous mujaheddin, first to provoke the Soviets to ill-considered action (as Carter advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski has since revealed), and, after the December 1979 invasion, to make the Soviet stay in Afghanistan as inhospitable as possible. The large flow of arms and high-tech weapons like shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles did not come until 1986, by which time the Soviet leadership was firmly committed to departure. But a steady supply of Chinese-made AK-47s and Soviet-made weapons sent via Egypt provided the Islamic rebels with ample firepower to cripple the Soviets' aims in Afghanistan. It was, at the time, heralded as the wondrous victory of the "Reagan Doctrine," the strategy to arm "freedom fighters" against Soviet-leaning regimes in places like Angola and Nicaragua.
In all its venues and applications, the Reagan Doctrine had no qualms about the human costs of fomenting warfare, and most important for the present predicament, had no post-conflict strategy. The wages of war were high for all. Angola is still in a civil war more than 20 years later, with the Reagan-backed Savimbi fueling a self-aggrandizing conflict. Nicaragua is devastated, impoverished; the Contras, who battled the Sandinista regime, engaged in a drug trade that now swamps the region.
So, too, with Afghanistan: the Soviets left in 1989, defeated, but their departure also left Afghanistan a political minefield (to go along with the 10 million real land mines left by both sides in the war). Warlords battled with each other for nearly a decade until the most extreme faction, the Taliban, gained ascendency in the late 1990s and provided the home to the terrorists the United States now seeks to rout. In the meantime, the 3 million AK-47s sent to the mujaheddin have been located as far away as Liberia and Mozambique, the fodder for other wars and misery. Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics wrote at the end of the 1980s:
"The most striking feature of the Reagan Doctrine was the way in which Washington itself came to be a promoter and organizer of terrorist actions. The mujaheddin in Afghanistan, UNITA in Angola and the Nicaraguan Contras were all responsible for abominable actions in their pursuit of "freedom" -- massacring civilians, torturing and raping captives, destroying schools, hospitals and economic installations, killing and mutilating prisoners ... Reagan was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people through terrorism."At about the same time the Afghan resistance was being organized with U.S. aid, the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein launched an attack on Iran to gain the oil fields on the gulf. This unprovoked act of war followed a period of quiet rapprochement with Washington (Bzrezinski again), and throughout the ensuing eight years of carnage -- in which one million people died -- the U.S. government increasingly helped Iraq, supplying it with more than $5 billion in financial credits, intelligence data, heavy equipment like trucks and political respectability. In most estimates, the U.S. "tilt" toward Baghdad was indispensable in saving Saddam from defeat.
The reason for the "tilt" was to frustrate the Islamic radicals in Teheran. This counter-Khomeini strategy extended beyond Iraq to countries like Turkey (where the U.S. approved a military coup in 1980 and suppression of Kurds, resulting in a civil war that has taken 30,000 lives) and Saudi Arabia (the keystone of U.S. oil policy, which led the U.S. to cast a blind eye on Saudi corruption and human-rights abuses). But Iraq, during the 1980s, was the centerpiece of this gambit.
After the catastrophic war of 1980-88, the new president, George Bush, embraced a policy of accommodation with Iraq. Within a few months of taking office, National Security Directive (NSD) 26 set the policy: "Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area" were the two rationales of a strategy that would "pursue, and seek to facilitate, opportunities for U.S. firms to participate in the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy ... Also, as a means of developing access and influence with the Iraqi defense establishment, the United States should consider sales of non-lethal forms of military assistance." Said a senior official of NSD 26: "The concern over Iranian fundamentalism was a given." The Reagan-Bush accommodationist policy toward Iraq meant that Saddam received only a slap on the wrist or the murder, with chemical weapons, of 5,000 Kurds in the north at the end of the war with Iran.
But when Iraq occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the tilt fell over. The anti-Iran strategy, itself a response to the ruinous policy of supporting the Shah, now had unavoidable consequences: the long and devastating war in Afghanistan; intensified bloodshed in the Iran-Iraq war; the Kurdish massacres in Turkey and Iraq; an acceleration of Islamic militancy in Pakistan and civil war in Kashmir; and the subjugation of Kuwait and the threat to oil fields of Saudi Arabia. It has had other corollary effects, such as a tolerance of Syrian misdeeds, as well as devotion to the perversely corrupt and fragile House of Saud, as Seymour Hersh so chillingly reports in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker. One must ask, in the wake of such an astounding set of catastrophes, if leaving Khomeini's Iran alone after 1980 would not have been less devastating in human terms, or whether Soviet "hegemony" over Afghanistan would not have been far better for Afghans, than 20 years of war, displacement and impoverishment.
While the responsibility for hundreds of thousands of starving or displaced Afghans cannot directly be laid at the feet of President Bush, the U.S. bombing campaign is the proximate cause. Panicky refugee flows are beginning to swell; on Oct. 19, the responsible U.N. agency said there are now refugees in the thousands and that conditions on the border with Pakistan are "chaotic." This steady stream of hungry and homeless is likely to enlarge if the bombing continues, civil war worsens or on-the-ground U.S. action escalates. By mid-November, food supplies will be harder to convey to "our" Afghans as winter sets in; shelter is also a desperate need. Some truly horrifying predictions of freezing and starvation have been aired -- up to one million -- which is improbable, but even thousands would be a sad ordeal.
The refugee situation is more complex, because it is not only a continuing misery for millions (already 3.5 million Afghans live in either Pakistan or Iran, a vast number in squalor), but because it strains the host communities, and is an incubator for militancy and violence. The 900,000 internally displaced Afghans will get far less international attention, even though their material circumstances may be desperate and their political vulnerability perilous.
In the idiom of international relations, the most worrisome consequence is the perilous state of Pakistan. Coerced to cooperate with the United States, the military government is risking a revolt from below. Tensions with India are escalating over terrorist attacks in Kashmir, orchestrated perhaps by the same Pakistani military establishment we are now utilizing to attack Afghanistan. The worries about collapse or gradual disintegration of secular rule in Pakistan are punctuated by its possession of nuclear weapons. It is conceivable that within a few years the same sort of criminals who attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 will have weapons of considerably greater power than four commercial jets. If one is comforted by the denigration of such scenarios by American officials, recall that they are the same group that engineered the accommodationist policy toward Iraq and the embrace of the mujaheddin. The eventual takeover of Islamabad by politically noxious "Islamicists" is a near certain, if the war escalates or is prolonged, or if an equally dangerous clique gains control in Kabul. It is difficult to see how Pakistan can readily stabilize under circumstances that have nearly come to this fruition as of mid-October.
The refugee flows and the anti-American sentiment among even moderate Muslims in the region also may destabilize Iran. The advances of moderation via civil society and the two electoral victories of President Khatemi could be reversed as a result of the war in Afghanistan and the American right wing's demands to antagonize Teheran as a "sponsor" of terrorism, along with the Taliban and Saddam. Internal political struggles in Iran were slowly being won by the forces of civility and democracy, but the "war on terrorism" may soon claim them as victims.
The calls to mount a campaign against Saddam, which is supported by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the pundits at the Washington Post, is nearly beyond the pale of predictability if the administration is foolish enough to try it. Such a move, which would require a colossal military effort, would stir the Muslim street to threaten not only Pakistan and Iran, but Saudi Arabia and possibly other countries. These episodes of unrest in the region always reveal the decrepit state of the Saudi royal family, its immense debt from high living and corruption and the devil's bargain the U.S. has struck to preserve control of oil. There have been sizable, bloody riots even as far away as Nigeria and Indonesia.
The "war of terrorism," now conducted mainly on Afghan soil, is enough to stir these anti-American sentiments, although perhaps a short and precise military campaign is necessary and we will simply have to cope with the fallout. But a long bombing campaign, a lengthy American search-and-destroy mission in the Afghan countryside, a bloody assault on the Taliban and siege of Kabul -- these unwarranted tactics, coupled with a refugee crisis, could inflame the tinderbox of Muslim sentiments. Invading Iraq would then only confirm their worst suspicions, that is, that Washington is intent upon destroying not just terrorists, but regimes in Muslim societies.
The roots of Muslim rage are not well understood, though surely the history of American (and, it must be said, British and French) actions in the region stretching from Algeria to Pakistan is a source. Justified or not, Muslim grievances center on the perception that America wields its power carelessly without a thought for the value of Muslim lives, whether Palestinians in the desperate refugee camps, Iraqis gunned down in the "turkey shoot" of Desert Storm, Kurds manipulated by one U.S. government after another or the millions who endure the savage rule of despots propped up by Washington. The ravages of globalized capitalism, while a more indirect burden, are also at work, because it is a system that, intentionally or not, undermines traditional ways of life, while failing to provide the satisfactions of modernity to any but a very few. If the search and seizure of bin Laden is not accomplished very quickly, and with unambiguous evidence of his guilt, he will become -- if he hasn't already -- a legend to tens of millions and a model for further action against the West.
So how should the United States and its European allies deal with this danger? A detailed strategy is not something most of us are prepared to put forward, but some criteria are comprehensible. The first is to see this form of terrorism as acts of criminals rather than acts of warriors. (Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker made this useful contrast right after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that it ennobles the hijackers to call this a war; they are criminals.) Law enforcement, enhanced by the full throttle of intelligence services -- including cooperation with allies -- is the most likely way to foil al-Qa'ida over the long haul.
Aggressive investigations, detainment of plausible suspects, freezing financial assets and the like keep terrorists on the move, harassed and disrupted. Counter-communications strategies and pressure on thugs like the Saudi princes who fund al-Qa'ida will further immobilize them. This does mean a very long effort, stretching out over years; it is, in fact, one that has already been underway for years, but devalued and made inept by successive American presidents. A "law enforcement plus" strategy does involve some diplomatic resources and military actions that go beyond, for example, the longtime struggle against the mafia. One should not underestimate the disruptive power of killing bin Laden, if it can be quickly administered. But the longer term strategy is essentially one of old-fashioned techniques that require constant vigilance, cooperation across many borders and respect for law and its institutions, including an international criminal, to bring the terrorists to justice.
At the same time, coping with underlying causes of this terrorism and American vulnerabilities must be a priority. Here the Bush administration is especially weak or dissembling. The control of oil remains the linchpin of U.S. security policy in the region, and, indeed, the immediate reason for bin Laden's rage is the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia since Desert Shield began in August 1990. American officials and opinion elites insist that we are there to protect our "access" to oil, but everyone in the world has access to oil; it's control over oil, and particularly the pricing of oil, which are at stake. There has been no energy policy for years, and the Bush energy proposals are not addressing the problem of gulf oil dependency at all. In part this is because American companies that do business there are close to the Bush administration (Halliburton, Dick Cheney's last employer, is one such firm), but it is also because to devise and implement an effective national strategy to reduce dependency on oil would require an enormous leap in fuel efficiency standards, a BTU tax, and a sharp increase in use of conservation and other fuels (possibly including nuclear energy). These measures have been so devalued by conventional wisdom and resisted by pampered consumers they are simply unpalatable. Sacrifices may go as far as one-hour waits at airport security lines, but not to using a 75-mile-per-gallon small car or paying for big improvements in mass transit.
The problem of Muslim "rage" and the like is far more complex, of course, but certainly there are steps that can be taken. It is commonplace nowadays to hear that we don't explain ourselves well to the Muslim world, that we are represented mainly by MTV and "Melrose Place" (occasionally it's also acknowledged that it was a bad idea to decimate the foreign service and the U.S. Information Agency). While this view has some merit, it misses a much larger point: it's not just that we must tell our story better, we must begin to listen to what the concerns of the Muslim world actually are. This doesn't mean tuning in to the cacophony of the "street"; an enormous number of Western-oriented Muslim intellectuals are disenchanted with U.S. policies and can eloquently articulate the various critiques. That they have little sympathy for the U.S., despite Sept. 11, and see only further alienation as a result of the military assaults on Afghanistan, is alarming. In the broad U.S. political culture, we are not listening to such critiques, which is what is often meant by American arrogance: what we have to tell others is more important than what others have to tell us.
These kinds of approaches to the politics and security challenges of southwestern Asia and north Africa are just that -- steps in what should be a much richer and complex national debate. That so many in the political and opinion establishment have resisted and even denounced such notions is a distressing sign of how uphill such steps will be. If we do care to absorb the lessons of the last 50 years in that region, however, we can do so only by engaging the history of policy failures (which beset all great powers) as well as the glory of the American dream. So much of that history is one of tragic and even catastrophic consequences, most of them unforeseen and unintended. We need now -- immediately -- to consider and act on those lessons both to honor the dead of Sept. 11 and to prevent more tragedy in the future.
John Tirman is program director at the Social Science Research Council,
and author of "Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade."